Charter Schools Help Some Kids, but Cost Many Others

Tuesday, June 07, 2011


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In case you've missed the headlines, the Mayor of Cranston, Allan Fung, has proposed opening a five-school network of charter schools in Cranston. To be run by Achievement First, a charter school management company, these schools are to serve largely low-income students from both Cranston and Providence. They are intended to be "Mayoral Academies," meaning they are not overseen by a school department, and not subject to any of the labor restrictions on Rhode Island charter schools.

You may think that a good idea, or you may not. We can debate the merits of teacher unions and their effect on education, and sure that would be lots of fun. But what isn't really debatable about this proposal is that the wonderful educational opportunities available to the students at these new schools will only come by reducing the opportunities available to the students who aren't in those schools.

I spent a little time last week with the AF proposal, and have this to report: I needed no convincing on the point, but the section about school results in Rhode Island is effective in persuading me that we have a lot of work to do in improving our schools. Our results overall are not great, and statewide, the gap between poor students and better-off ones are significant. On the other hand, the best testing data available is far from an overwhelming endorsement of charter schools. But even if you think AF schools will work magic, there's a problem and -- as usual -- it's money.

Follow the money

The way charter schools are funded under Rhode Island law is that the funding follows the student. A Providence student in a Cranston charter school will result in the City of Providence paying the school the average cost of educating a child in Providence, or around $14,000.

Sounds fair, doesn't it?

It does sound fair, but it's not fair at all, because the loss of a student won't save that district the average cost of an education, but only the marginal cost of a student, which is much less. If I drive three passengers on a trip from Hopkinton to Providence, we will spend an average of a quart of gas per person. However, if one of us decides not to go, and takes his quart of gas with him, the rest of us aren't going to get there on only three quarts. We don't save a quart of gas by not taking one passenger. We save the marginal cost, maybe an ounce or two of gas, if that.

An average is an interesting number, and good way to make a comparisons to other cars or between cars and buses, but it's not always useful for predicting how much gas we'll need. In exactly the same way, it may cost an average of $14,000 per year to educate a child in Providence, but that doesn't mean the system will be $14,000 cheaper with one fewer student. More likely it will be about ten cents cheaper -- and $14,000 poorer. This is a pretty basic point of business economics so I find it surprising that so many people who claim vast business acumen fail to see it.

The AF plans indicate that within the first year, they will have 176 kindergarten and first grade students, half each from Providence and Cranston. Providence has almost 4,000 kids of those ages in a few dozen elementary schools, so the loss of 88 will cause hardly a ripple in expenses, but it will leave the district $1.2 million poorer.

Cranston benefits over Providence

From the City of Cranston's perspective, there is some appeal to the proposal. Cranston doesn't have a huge number of poor students, and the proposed schools could absorb a decent percentage of them. In a way, what you'd have would be new schools for those students, funded in half by the City of Providence. Clever, no?

The bottom line is this: It's perfectly reasonable to agree with the diagnosis that our schools don't serve our students well and at the same time be appalled by suggestions that taking money from them is the way to improve them.

Make no mistake, the new schools under discussion will be delightful institutions, filled with new carpets, shiny computers, and enthusiastic young teachers. But they will only serve a fraction of those cities' students, and will be funded by taking money from the students left behind at existing schools. Under the current rules of the charter school game, the increased educational opportunity at the new schools can only be created by decreasing the educational opportunity of students at other schools.

That kind of zero-sum arithmetic simply does not belong in discussions of public education, and it's scandalous that it goes so often without mention by the education "reformers." It's especially disgraceful since much of the statewide achievement gap between poor and better-off kids so well described in the AF proposal isn't due to some kind of curriculum shortcomings, but is a result of the very differences between the poor and better-off communities that proposals like this will exacerbate.

Charter schools have a lot going for them in theory. We are fools not to experiment with how education is delivered. But exactly why am I supposed to believe that these experiments and great educational opportunities will also make education cheaper?

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Tom Sgouros is the editor of the Rhode Island Policy Reporter, at Contact him at [email protected]


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